Pandemic Cuts America’s Lead Over China as Most Powerful Nation in Asia

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U.S. President Donald Trump gestures to China’s President Xi Jinping during a business leaders event in Nov 2017. Photo: AFP

Kristine Servando/ Bloomberg

Beijing: China is closing in on the U.S. as the most powerful country influ­encing the Asia-Pacific, as America’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic tarnishes its reputation, a study showed.

While America retained its place as the region’s top superpower, its 10-point lead on China two years ago has been halved, according to the Sydney-based Lowy Institute’s Asia Power Index for 2020, which ranks 26 nations and territories.

The U.S. “lost prestige” due to its poor response to the pandemic, multiple trade disputes and President Don­ald Trump’s moves to with­draw from multilateral deals and agencies, according to Herve Lemahieu, the study’s research chief and director of Lowy’s Asian Power and Di­plomacy Program.

“The pandemic was a game changer,” he said in a phone interview. “It contributed to a double whammy of problems for the U.S. because on the one hand, its poor handling of the Covid-19 crisis has resulted in a diminished reputation. And on the other hand, obviously it will take many more years to recover from the economic fallout of the pandemic.”

The U.S. economy could take until 2024 to recover to pre-pandemic levels, the insti­tute said. In contrast, China’s economy has rebounded from the virus and is the only large economy forecast to recover in 2020. This could give it an advantage against neighbors over the next decade.

China stayed firmly in sec­ond place for the third year run­ning, despite seeing a “notable fall” in diplomatic clout after facing accusations of withhold­ing information about the se­verity of the Wuhan outbreak. Lemahieu also cited wolf war­rior diplomacy — more aggres­sive rhetoric and actions from Beijing’s envoys — contribut­ing to that drop.

A Trump re-election in November would bring “more of the same” trends, he said. However, China would find it hard to replace the U.S. and be­come the region’s uncontested dominant power.

“I think it’s more likely that China will eventually level with the United States and may, toward the end of this decade, even surpass the United States. But not mean­ingfully enough to pull ahead by substantial margins,” said Lemahieu.

“Asia will learn to cope without the United States if Trump wins a second term,” he added. “With [Joe] Biden, I think Asia will be far more willing to do business with the United States.”

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